Imagine a game like Need for Speed Underground 2, in which you can drive around in a freely explorable city, racing other drivers or just messing around as you see fit. Now, imagine it with talking cars, a tiny desert town and nearly every hint of crime or violence removed, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect from Cars.
While it ties in with the Pixar movie, Cars picks up where the film left off, with cherry-red racetrack star Lightning McQueen settling into the town of Radiator Springs. With the help of the quirky residents, he'll need to get in shape for the next pro racing season, which means lots of short street races, off-road runs and other challenges, all punctuated by assorted minigames and NASCAR-style circuit races for the coveted Piston Cup.
In the meantime, Lightning is free to tear through Radiator Springs, the surrounding desert and - later on - the nearby mountains and the neighboring fields of Ornament Valley. Lightning's fast and handles smoothly, and his abilities to tilt onto two wheels or hop on command make exploring the big, rocky landscape a breeze.
Lightning's friends get those abilities as well, and at certain points in the game, you'll be able to play as other characters from the movie, including Mater the tow truck, the deceptively fast Sheriff and even a crew of neon-decked street-racer hooligans.
They all handle a little differently, and their minigames and challenges help keep the game from getting monotonous. Some of these activities - like hunting down discarded tires as tire-store owner Luigi, or nailing speeders as Sheriff - are actually a lot of fun, while others (tipping over cow-like tractors as Mater, say) are just mildly enjoyable.
The only really weak points of the single-player game are the repetitive, 12-lap Piston Cup races, but those are rare and usually over pretty quickly. The two-player modes, on the other hand, are disappointingly short and simple. A perfect example is "Sheriff's Hot Pursuit," which dumbs down a potentially interesting police chase by forcing players to weave through traffic on an endless straightaway instead of playing cat-and-mouse through town.
As a racing game, Cars isn't bad, but its real strength is in its presentation. It's not quite as sharp as the film, but the cars are expressive and well-animated to the point where their chrome lips actually sync up well with the dialogue. (They also like to mug at the camera a lot during the cinemas.) Also, in what might be a first for a licensed game, all of the film's A-list actors - from Owen Wilson to John Ratzenberger - recorded original dialogue for the game. It's pretty cool, although we could have done without hearing Wilson say "Ka-chow!" every five minutes.
The console versions of Cars are all essentially identical, although the 360 edition does pack in sharper, hi-def visuals and some new bonus content, including a so-so minigame where you chase Mater around with a lantern.
Whichever version you play, Cars is a likable little racing adventure. The gameplay is nothing outstanding, but it's fun enough while it lasts, and overall it looks pretty slick. If you've seen the movie and long to explore Radiator Springs for yourself, this is worth checking out.